Major European stock markets were expected to open as much as 1.2 percent lower, financial bookmakers said, after Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke described the U.S. outlook as unusually uncertain but gave no indication that specific actions to deal with it are imminent.
The conclusion of the European Union examination of banks' financial strength is due on Friday and is expected to show generally positive results for Greece, Italy and Ireland and a few failures in Portugal and Spain.
However, if investors perceive the test results as credible, do not expect risk-taking to bounce back for long, given that Europe's fundamental backdrop remains relatively grim, especially with fiscal austerity the norm, U.S. fund managers and analysts said.
Meantime, Bernanke's somewhat downbeat comments and lack of any policy action triggered more profit taking.
Those who had expected more were disappointed after Bernanke only said the Fed stands ready to ease monetary policy further, said Hiroichi Nishi, general manager of equity marketing at Nikko Cordial Securities in Tokyo.
Japan's Nikkei share average <.N225> finished down 0.6 percent, its fifth straight session of losses. The Nikkei has fallen 1.7 percent so far in July, underperforming the S&P 500 <.SPX>, which is up 3.8 percent, and the FTSEurofirst 300 <.FTEU3>, which has risen 2.5 percent.
Short-term indicators pointed to oversold conditions, though persistent yen strength has dominated equity trading lately. As long as currency dealers keep knocking the dollar back toward 85 yen per dollar, roughly the low from November 2009, Japanese equities could be under pressure.
The MSCI index of Asia Pacific stocks outside Japan <.MIAPJ0000PUS> slid 0.7 percent, with healthcare and technology stocks the main drags.
The tech sector was weighed down after South Korea's Hynix Semiconductor, the world's No. 2 memory chip maker, said DRAM prices would fall in the current quarter, even though shipments were expected to grow. Hynix shares <000660.KS> fell 4.2 percent.
Dow Jones Industrial Average components 3M Co and Caterpillar will be among the more closely watched earnings reports later in the day as investors look for more clues on the global growth outlook.
So far 80 percent of the S&P 500 companies that have posted second-quarter earnings have either met or beat estimates. However, with fears rife about a slowing global economy, third-quarter earnings forecasts for companies that have not yet reported have already been cut by 1 percent, Thomson Reuters Starmine showed.
The yen rose across the board, benefiting from the increased risk aversion in financial markets. The U.S. dollar fell 0.5 percent to 86.48 yen, closing in on the 7-1/2-month low hit last week of 86.27 yen.
Japanese policymakers have been trying to talk the yen lower, fearing the country's exporters would be hurt. Deputy Finance Minister Motohisa Ikeda said on Thursday that Japan wants to avoid excessive rises in the yen, but market reaction was muted.
However, traders appeared intent on testing what many believe to be the line in the sand at 85 yen per dollar, beyond which they expect Japan would take action to defend.
The yen has already risen more than 7 percent against the dollar so far this year.
Long maturity U.S. Treasuries crept higher, pushing down the 10-year yield to 2.88 percent, not far from the 15-month low of 2.86 percent hit overnight. The 2-year yield was at a record low of 0.56 percent.
U.S. economic data due later on Thursday are expected to show persistent weakness in labor and housing markets -- sore points for investors that exacerbate a shift out of risky assets. Investors were also awaiting Bernanke's second day of testimony to Congress (starting at 1330 GMT).
Bernanke is testifying again, and focus will be on whether he gives any extra hint of potential Fed action if the economy continues to soften. Lack of such suggestion on a day of poor data releases would further strain investors' nerves, Dariusz Kowalczyk, senior economist with Credit Agricole CIB in Hong Kong, said in a note.
U.S. crude futures eased 0.4 percent to $76.29 a barrel after dropping 1.3 percent on Wednesday on Bernanke's comments.
Gold prices fell 0.8 percent, bringing month-to-date losses to 4.7 percent. The metal was roughly $10 away from a two-month low hit on Tuesday and could test that level soon, with investors cutting gold positions to cover losses in other markets.
(Additional reporting by Aiko Hayashi in TOKYO)
(Editing by Kim Coghill)